Those who play team sports at a professional level do a job and are paid for it. Not much to discuss, right? Not to mention those who earn incredible amounts of money because they play in the big leagues or in the NBA or NFL, belonging to a team also guarantees a salary.
However, there are not only sportsmen who compete in teams: there are also individual sports such as tennis, swimming or running. How can those who run marathons or ultras secure financial peace of mind? By getting sponsored, of course, and winning races. However, we know that-except for the Majors, i.e., marathons such as London, Boston, New York, etc. – the prizes are not gigantic and especially the chances of winning them are very small.
Trailrunner magazine in an excellent article by Brian Metzler describes very thoroughly how sponsorships work in the ultratrail world, how much a sponsored athlete can earn, and how the most capable athletes and female athletes move within this market.
Why contracts last one year
Meltzer starts with a good point: why is it that each year in January many athletes change sponsors? The reason is quickly stated: contracts typically last for one year because then the sponsor has a chance to measure its financial commitment against the athlete’s achievements in the previous year. Meltzer brings up the example of Tim Tollefson, who recently signed with Craftafter six years with Hoka. What would seem to be an unbalanced relationship to the detriment of athletes should not hide the fact that they also have negotiating leverage: if their results are good or excellent, they can in fact tick off more substantial contracts or they may even decide to change to challenge themselves continuously, that is, applying the logic they follow in competitions also in the management of their professional and sports figure.
How much do these contracts come to be worth? From a minimum of $15,000 per season for athletes with no particular athletic achievements, up to $300,000 for those-especially marathon runners-with achievements especially in the Majors mentioned earlier.
As is often the case in many jobs, however, salary is only part of what an athlete can earn. In fact, what they get may also increase in relation to other parameters, such as winning records, overall medal standings, and also having achieved a podium, even if not at the highest level.
Let us not forget, however, that athletes remain individual professionals who must be capable not only of above-average athletic performance but also of managing their persona with media, fans and especially with brands. In short, they should think not only in terms of the race but more broadly: as companies that sell themselves as a product.
It is also interesting to see what happened on the other side, namely how brands operate. Sponsoring up-and-coming athletes is a gamble for them as well, but some-especially the younger and equally up-and-coming ones, as Hoka was 10 years ago-have focused on promising athletes to establish themselves in the market and get results.
Within this landscape there is a turnover similar to that which exists among athletes, albeit with a smaller number of players: in short, it happens that new brands enter seeking space and visibility or that others re-enter that had perhaps focused on other sports sectors and want to regain positions in that world.
In short, one must imagine that there are two actors in the field: brands and athletes. The intelligence of both lies in the strategy with which they manage to negotiate contracts knowing what each can offer the other but also-most subtly and interestingly-what each could bring as a dowry to the other. Knowing, for example, that a brand wants to establish itself or return to the industry is an interesting leverage for an athlete who wants to change sponsors and has skills and results to offer. As you can understand, in short it is a matter of strategy and negotiating skills.
Exactly: strategy. Of course, if one has to think about training to run tens or hundreds of miles, he will not have much time to think about the business strategy of his personal brand. Nor he’s necessarily inclined to do so, for that matter.
As in many other cases in the world of sports, the U.S. is ahead of Europe in innovation, especially in optimizing processes that arose spontaneously but need to be refined and “professionalized” to be more efficient. It is the case of The Trail Team, a mentoring service founded by trail runner Andy Wacker that aims to accompany promising athletes as they evolve, matching supply (i.e., them) and demand (i.e., sponsors), as well as pairing them with coaches and specialists to improve, advising which races to do and how to prepare for them. If they pass the selections, athletes who are taken on the Trail Team receive a monthly salary, in addition to the assistance mentioned above. And they are trained not only to improve their sports performance but also their negotiation and professional performance. To do what many will consider a distortion, and that is to become professional athletes, with skills and performance that come at a cost that must be valued and recognized.
There is perhaps less romance and poetry in this approach, but it is also right to value people. Also and especially economic.